Why a Free Album?

Guardian UnlimitedOver at the Guardian, Paul MacInnes wonders why a band would give away an album when there’s “still money to be made from recorded material.” Which makes me wonder how much take-home pay he thinks a typical band signed to, oooh, say, Warner Brothers actually make. Because behind the media impression of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, artists tend to end up owing labels money. More on that from Steve Albini (Nirvana, Pixies, etc) can be read here. Basically, most album profits (except for a handful of worldwide superstar artists) go directly to a label, with a majority of acts surviving through gigs, merchandise and separate work. All giving away recordings as a taster for those things is doing is cutting out a middle-man — the internet substituting for a marketing budget paid for out of an advance — thus giving a band more to live on.

Of course, as Paul says, they need strong material to do that. Now, personally I don’t think people will be disappointed, but here’s the rub: head over to and find out for yourselves. That’s a bunch of people putting their money where their mouth is. *steps off soap box*

Crimea pays

A middling indie band are giving away their new album. Pioneering inversion of the industry model or feeble publicity stunt?

These are exciting times for the music industry. Exciting times, that is, if the imminent possibility of your own demise and the type of risk-taking normally associated with myopic abseilers is your idea of an adventure.

Take the latest brainwave aiming to end the uncertainties created by the sudden rise of the MP3: the Crimea, an indie band of moderate repute and more modest sales, are to give away their album for free.

Their justification runs thusly: “We’ve always strived to get the music out to as many people as possible,” mumbles Owen Hopkin, the band’s drummer, who – in this brave new world – now appears to be doubling up with administrative duties. “We want to harness the power of the internet. If it’s on there for free we’ll reach more people than the orthodox route of selling the record.”

In itself this is 100% true. And the band claim they can make money, eventually, as all their newfound freebie fans become so attached to the band that they pay to see the Crimea live and, while they’re there, buy a branded T-shirt and commemorative hussar’s scabbard.

There is something of a logic behind this. Live music in the UK is booming and is now seen as a more reliable source of revenue than singles or albums. “Live shows are far more precious and people are prepared to pay to see them”, Rob Hallett, senior VP of promotions group and friends of John Prescott AEG, told Music Week recently. “And as long as the industry does its best to make them feel they have got their money’s worth, I don’t see that falling away.”

Forgo a record deal to play regularly in front of crowds of 200, the argument goes, and you will quite steadily make the sort of money you would have selling 35,000 copies of your album (as the Crimea did), only without having to give a cut back to the label.

All of which makes you wonder why every band in the world isn’t doing the same as the Crimea. Or, for that matter, why labels themselves are not – such is their antiquated affection for those things called profits.

The truth is that there is still money to be made from recorded material. Sure if you have a band which relies on teenage fans who find ripping stuff off Limewire easier than getting a pack of 10 Lambert and Butler, you might have to change your tactics a little. But many labels are deciding on an approach directly opposite to the Crimea’s – using regular gigging and effective merchandising to persuade punters to invest in the album.

The other, perhaps more sizeable, problem is that you can have all the wheezes you like – this weekend’s earthquake in Kent is believed in some quarters to have been a promotional stunt by Dexy’s Midnight Runners soundalikes the Rumblestrips, for example – but if your music’s rubbish no one will pay attention, never mind stump up for the scabbard.

Bands like Arctic Monkeys and Koopa may have “harnessed the power of the internet” (what with, a fibre-optic bridle?) but they only did so because, first of all, people liked their music. The suspicion remains that if the Crimea’s new album were that good, they wouldn’t be giving it away for free.

Article by Paul MacInnes for Guardian Unlimited, 30/05/07.

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One Response to “Why a Free Album?”

  1. Denyer says:

    Nice save, Chris. The plan’s changed I take it? Cool. Early release. :)

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